On This Day in History, February 25: Sanitary Fair Raises Big Money for Civil War Soldiers

February 24, 2012 Brooklyn Eagle Staff
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In 1864, the Brooklyn Academy of Music on Montague Street hosted the Brooklyn and Long Island Sanitary Fair, a fundraiser for the Sanitary Commission, which provided medical assistance to Union soldiers on the front lines of the Civil War. The fair, largely organized by women’s church committees, began on Feb. 22, 1864, and ended a few weeks later on March 8.

Two temporary buildings were erected on Montague Street to  augment the academy in accomodating the fair, and the Taylor Mansion, at Montague and Clinton streets, was converted into an art gallery.

It was a tremendous success, raising $402,943.74 (millions of dollars in todays terms), and a great point of pride for Brooklyn, which had been invited to join New York’s sanitary fair, but in going it alone, outshined the metropolis across the river.

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When the Brooklyn fair opened, the Sanitary commission began a newsletter called The Drum Beat. The Feb. 25, 1864, issue began with a poem, author unknown:


Beat, noble Drum! beat loud and strong—

Roll the deep bass

of Liberty!

Thrill thro’ the pulses of this throng —

Till every chord responds to thee!

Tell them, thine are but echoing notes

Of Drums that beat in camp and field,

Where’er our starry banner floats, —

Or Victory with Blood

is sealed!

* * *

The newsletter went on to make this report: “Another day of delightful weather has favored the Sanitary Fair, and many thousands of our citizens and strangers took advantage of it to visit the Exhibition. The increased charges for admission seemed to make little or no difference in the numbers present, and the Academy, and adjacent buildings were yesterday as crowded as on the previous days. The eating arrangements had been improved, and in every respect the machinery of the great Fair moved smoother than before.

The total receipts for entrance tickets sold up to last evening were eighteen thousand eight hundred and three dollars. The sales have amounted to nineteen thousand two hundred and fifty dollars; and cash contributions amount to nineteen thousand six hundred and fourteen dollars.

The previous receipts in the Treasurer’s hands from all sources amounted to fifty-nine thousand five hundred and seventy-eight dollars. Total cash in hands of Treasurer last night $117,236.

The Executive Committee, in view of the great rush to the Fair — necessitating last night the closing of the doors as early as eight P.M., —- advise visitors from New York and elsewhere to come as early in the day as possible. The fair buildings are open to the public at eleven A.M.”

In 1979 the Brooklyn Educational & Cultural Alliance published a booklet describing the great fair and the types of activities it entailed:

“The Academy building was the natural place to hold such a fair, being both large and accessible. In addition, the fair directors borrowed the Taylor mansion on the northeast corner of Montague and Clinton and also erected two temporary structures, one adjacent to the Academy on the west and a second across Montague Street connected to the Academy by a covered bridge.

“The fair was inaugurated with a military parade on February 22, 1864, in honor of George Washington’s birthday. Within the Academy were a bazaar, a painting exhibition, and other entertainments. A platform was placed over the orchestra of the Academy auditorium to create a giant reception space. The Taylor mansion was turned into a museum for the display of patriotic and Washington-related relics, works of art for sale, engravings, including Henry Ward Beecher’s own collection, Eastern “curiosities,” some of Robert Fulton’s steamboat models, and various oddities, including photographs, autographs, and collections of autumn leaves — a truly American jumble. [According to the Brooklyn Daily Union of Feb. 23, 1864, not mentioned in this article was a sword presented to Light Horse Harry Lee, Revolutionary War hero and father of Confederate General Robert E. Lee; a clock that had been damaged by British bullets in 1778; a chair that had been buried lest the British should sit on it: and Patrick Henry’s rifle.]

“Knickerbocker Hall, the temporary structure just west of the Academy, was a two-story, seventy-foot-long building. It housed a gigantic restaurant where delicacies were served by waitresses dressed in red, white, and blue uniforms. The other temporary structure, across the street from the Academy (on the north side of Montague Street), housed the Hall of Manufactures, displaying various industrial products, and the New England Kitchen, an early example of an ‘authentic reproduction,’ designed as it would have appeared ‘just prior to the throwing overboard of the tea in Boston Harbor.’” [Proceeds from the bowls of chowder served from a huge iron pot hanging over a gigantic fireplace, added many dollars to the fair’s receipts.]

Overall, the Sanitary Fair was a great financial success and established Montague Street as the social center of Brooklyn. Its temporary structures, although quickly built on empty lots and just as quickly demolished, established a future pattern for the street’s development, for their sites were shortly thereafter taken over for two new cultural institutions.The masthead of the fair’s newsletter, The DrumBeat.

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